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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Memorial Day: The Wall That Commemorates Our ‘Forever Wars’

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Earlier this month, I spent a day visiting Marseilles to videotape a documentary about recent American military history, specifically the ongoing wars that most of us prefer not to think about.

Lest there be any confusion, let me be more specific. I am not referring to Marseilles (mar-SAY), France, that nation’s largest port and second largest city with a population approaching 900,000. No, my destination was Marseilles (mar-SAYLZ), Illinois, a small prairie town with a population hovering around 5,000.

Our own lesser Marseilles nestles alongside the Illinois River, more or less equidistant between Chicago and Peoria, smack dab in the middle of flyover country. I have some personal familiarity with this part of America. More than half a century ago, the school I attended in nearby Peru used to play the Panthers of Marseilles High. Unfortunately, their school closed three decades ago.

Back then, the town had achieved minor distinction for manufacturing corrugated boxes for Nabisco. But that factory was shuttered in 2002 and only the abandoned building remains, its eight-story hulk still looming above Main Street.

Today, downtown Marseilles, running a few short blocks toward the river, consists of tired-looking commercial structures dating from early in the previous century. Many of the storefronts are empty. By all appearances, the rest may suffer a similar fate in the not-too-distant future. Although the U.S. economy has bounced back from the Great Recession, recovery bypassed Marseilles. Here, the good times ended long ago and never came back. The feel of the place is weary and forlorn. Hedge-fund managers keen to turn a quick profit should look elsewhere.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, this is Trump country. Marseilles is located in LaSalle County, which in 2016 voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a hefty 14 percent margin. It’s easy to imagine residents of Marseilles, which is more than 96 percent white, taking umbrage at Clinton’s disparaging reference to The Donald’s supporters as so many “deplorables.” They had reason to do so.

Think about it: Any American wanting to pay personal tribute to those who fought and died for our country in World War II or Korea or Vietnam knows where to go — to the Mall in Washington D.C., that long stretch of lawn and reflecting pools connecting the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Any American wanting to honor the sacrifice of those who fought and died in a series of more recent conflicts that have lasted longer than World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined must travel to a place where the nearest public transportation is a Greyhound bus station down the road in Ottawa and the top restaurant is Bobaluk’s Beef and Pizza. Nowhere else in this vast nation of ours has anyone invested the money and the effort to remember more than a generation’s worth of less-than-triumphant American war making. Marseilles has a lock on the franchise.

Critics might quibble with the aesthetics of the memorial, dismissing it as an unpretentious knock-off of the far more famous Vietnam Wall. Yet if the design doesn’t qualify as cutting edge, it is palpably honest and heartfelt. It consists chiefly of a series of polished granite panels listing the names of those killed during the various phases of this country’s “forever wars” going all the way back to the sailors gunned down in the June 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty.

Those panels now contain more than 8,000 names. Each June, in conjunction with the annual “Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run,” which ends at the memorial, more are added. Along with flags and plaques, there is also text affirming that all those commemorated there are heroes who died for freedom and will never be forgotten.

On that point, allow me to register my own quibble. Although my son’s name is halfway down near the left margin of Panel 5B, I find myself uneasy with any reference to American soldiers having died for freedom in the Greater Middle East. Our pronounced penchant for using that term in connection with virtually any American military action strikes me as a dodge. It serves as an excuse for not thinking too deeply about the commitments, policies, and decisions that led to all those names being etched in stone, with more to come next month and probably for many years thereafter.

In Ernest Hemingway’s famed novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms, his protagonist is “embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.” I feel something similar when it comes to the use of freedom in this context. Wellnot embarrassed exactly, but deeply uncomfortable. Freedom, used in this fashion, conceals truth behind a veil of patriotic sentiment.

Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Candidates at the Wall

During the several hours I spent there, virtually no one else visited the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial. A single elderly couple stopped by briefly and that was that. If this was understandable, it was also telling. After all, Marseilles, Illinois, is an out-of-the-way, isolated little burg. Touristy it’s not. There’s no buzz and no vibe and it’s a long way from the places that set the tone in present-day America. To compare Marseilles with New York, Washington, Hollywood, Las Vegas, or Silicon Valley is like comparing a Dollar General with Saks Fifth Avenue. Marseilles has the former. The closest Saks outlet is about a two-hour drive to Chicago’s Loop.

On the other hand, when you think about it, Marseilles is exactly the right place to situate the nation’s only existing memorial to its Middle Eastern wars. Where better, after all, to commemorate conflicts that Americans would like to ignore or forget than in a hollowing-out Midwestern town they never knew existed in the first place?

So, with the campaign for the 2020 presidential election now heating up, allow me to offer a modest proposal of my own — one that might, briefly at least, make Marseilles a destination of sorts.

Just as there are all-but-mandatory venues in Iowa and New Hampshire where candidates are expected to appear, why not make Marseilles, Illinois, one as well? Let all the candidates competing to oust Donald Trump from the White House (their ranks now approaching two dozen) schedule at least one campaign stop at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial, press entourage suitably in tow.

Let them take a page from presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall and use the site as a backdrop to reflect on the historical significance of this particular place. They should explain in concrete terms what the conflicts memorialized there signify; describe their relationship to the post-Cold War narrative of America as the planet’s “indispensable nation” or “sole superpower”; assess the disastrous costs and consequences of those never-ending wars; fix accountability; lay out to the American people how to avoid repeating the mistakes made by previous administrations, including the present one that seems to be itching for yet another conflict in the Middle East; and help us understand how, under the guise of promoting liberty and democracy, Washington has sown chaos through much of the region.

And, just to make it interesting, bonus points for anyone who can get through their remarks without referring to “freedom” or “supreme sacrifice,” citing the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13 (“Greater love hath no man than this…”), or offering some fatuous reference to GIs as agents of the Lord called upon to smite evildoers. On the other hand, apt comparisons to Vietnam are not just permitted but encouraged.

I’m betting that the good bikers of Illinois who long ago served in Vietnam will happily provide a mic and a podium. If they won’t, I will.

Andrew Bacevich is a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Twilight of the American Century. His previous book was America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

Copyright 2019 Andrew J. Bacevich

Islamic State Is A Symptom, Not The Disease

By Andrew J. Bacevich, Los Angeles Times

“Comprehensive strategy.” That’s the operative phrase that the Obama administration has employed in rolling out its new campaign to take on the Islamic State. With its connotations of scope and gravity, the phrase resonates — not unlike “extra heavy duty” or “bigger and better than ever.” Among observers on both the militant left and the militarized right, it has found favor. That the Islamic State poses something akin to a planetary threat has become the consensus view in such quarters. This, offered after perhaps a bit too much hesitation, is the response that may yet save the day.

In fact, whatever else we may say of the approach that the administration has cobbled together — American air power (assuming the availability of suitable targets) plus surrogates on the ground (if motivated to fight) supported by a hastily assembled coalition vaguely promising to assist “as appropriate” — it does not qualify as a comprehensive strategy. It’s whack-a-mole all over again, the same method that Obama implemented in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, applied now on a larger scale.

Woe betide the patient treated by a physician unable to distinguish between symptom and disease. Woe betide the nation whose leaders suffer from the same failing. Unfortunately, that pretty much defines where the United States finds itself today.

The Islamic State emerged from a set of nontrivial conditions afflicting many nations across the greater Middle East. Figuring prominently among those conditions are political dysfunction, economic underdevelopment and social alienation, along with the pernicious residue of European colonialism still lingering everywhere from arbitrary borders to thieving local elites. Those so inclined can throw into the mix the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people.

The key point is this: Were the United States and its partners miraculously to succeed tomorrow in destroying the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, those conditions would still persist. As a consequence, another “Islamic State,” under another banner, inspired by a new leader, would almost certainly appear. And we’ll find ourselves right back where we are today. Indeed, Islamic State is itself a legacy organization, successor to the now defunct al Qaeda in Iraq.

Now this is not reason to forgo attacking the Islamic State, a truly vicious and vile enterprise (even if posing a negligible threat to the United States, a flood of overheated rhetoric notwithstanding). But the Islamic State is a symptom, not the disease. American bombs and missiles might well suppress this particular symptom, but surely will not eliminate its cause or even prevent its recurrence.

Here we confront what should by all rights qualify as one of the major lessons to be drawn from the U.S. military’s decades-long involvement in the Islamic world. Armed might, often expended at great human, fiscal and moral cost, holds little promise as the means to fix the problem. It hasn’t worked. Trying harder won’t produce a different outcome. Any strategy worthy of the name, therefore, will necessarily rest on something other than military power.

Of course, proponents of military action reflexively acknowledge that “there is no military solution” to this or that situation. Typically, they utter this platitude immediately before insisting that in the particular situation at hand no non-military alternative exists. So it’s bombs away.

But take that platitude seriously and make it a basis for actual policy. That’s when an authentically comprehensive strategy becomes possible.

What might form the basis of such a policy? Lowering the U. S. military profile, which has proved counterproductive (see the Obama principle: Don’t do stupid stuff). Erecting effective defenses (deter and contain the bad guys). Living up to our professed ideals (demonstrating the universality of liberal values). On the margins, helping the peoples of the Islamic world to reconcile modernity with tradition (which implies making adjustments on their own terms).

A long-term proposition requiring considerable patience and not without risk? You bet. But the alternative is whack-a-mole from now until the cows come home. And that’s no strategy. It’s an admission of failure, accepting permanent war as inevitable.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, is currently a fellow at Columbia University. His online course “War for the Greater Middle East” goes live Sept. 24. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

AFP Photo

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What The U.S. Should Do In Iraq: Stop What Is Counterproductive

By Andrew J. Bacevich, Los Angeles Times

From a moral perspective, President Barack Obama’s response to the plight of Iraqi minorities targeted for extinction by vicious Islamists is justifiable and even commendable. Yet the resumption of American military action in Iraq — bombs for the wicked, bundles for the innocent — cannot disguise the overall disarray of U.S. policy in the region.

The moral sensibilities that have apparently moved the Obama administration to renew the Iraq war are, to put it mildly, selective. Elsewhere in the immediate region, Washington has hesitated to confront wickedness and has stood by while innocents have been subjected to the cruelest treatment. Whatever the factors that have shaped the U.S. response to Syria’s civil war, the military coup that terminated Egypt’s experiment with democracy and Israel’s assault on Gaza, moral concerns have figured, at best, as an afterthought.

If recent U.S. actions in the Middle East contain a common theme, it’s this: a vague hope that suppressing rampant Islamic radicalism will restore order to a region that previous U.S. military efforts have done so much to destabilize. Yet translating that hope into reality poses daunting challenges, nowhere more so than in Iraq.

Peter Baker of the New York Times has referred to Iraq as the “graveyard of American ambition.” The characterization is an apt one. Each of the last five presidents has seen Iraq as an instrument to serve U.S. interests or has expected Baghdad to comply with specific American requirements. Each in turn has failed, bequeathing the consequences of that failure to his successor.

During the 1980s, to curb the ambitions of revolutionary Iran, Ronald Reagan sought to use Iraq as a proxy. The chief result, along with the vast and pointless bloodletting of the Iran-Iraq war, was to fuel the megalomania of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The administration of George H.W. Bush marked Iraq’s transformation from unseemly partner to full-fledged adversary. Bush punished Iraq for invading Kuwait, confident that from victory would come a “new world order.” Rather than order, the United States found itself saddled with responsibility for garrisoning the Persian Gulf.

To keep Hussein “in his box,” Bush inaugurated and Bill Clinton affirmed a policy of militarized containment. Yet the permanent stationing of U.S. forces in the Islamic world and the punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq stoked anti-American jihadism and thereby helped lay the basis for 9/11.

The events of September 2001 inspired President George. W. Bush to make Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign to transform the Greater Middle East. Promising to liberate and democratize Iraq, Bush instead broke it.

Although Barack Obama’s vow to extricate the United States from his predecessor’s misbegotten war vaulted him into the White House, events have stymied his hopes of making a clean break. A weak Iraq state and ineffective military forces — created at considerable expense during the several years of American occupation — have proved unable to cope with resurgent violence.

To imagine at this late date that the United States possesses the capacity to reverse this sad situation is surely a delusion. So even if an infusion of American air power succeeds in saving the lives of those at immediate risk, Iraq will remain a basket case. Riding to the temporary rescue of Kurds, Yazidis or persecuted Iraqi Christians may salve American consciences, but it won’t redeem a bipartisan record of failure that now extends over several decades. That failure is definitive and indelible.

Historians will have a field day in apportioning responsibility for that failure, a project likely to provoke arguments continuing far into the future. What those responsible for formulating policy are called on to do is to move on, cognizant of the past but accepting it as fixed and irrevocable.

If restoring a semblance of stability to the Middle East is in the interests of the United States, as it surely is, the present moment requires two things.

Step one is to stop doing what’s counterproductive. That means ending the excessive militarization of U.S. policy that Washington’s inordinate preoccupation with Iraq has promoted. Nothing would be more foolish than for President Obama to allow himself to be drawn into another large-scale conflict, as he himself appears to appreciate.

Step two means setting sensible priorities, differentiating between what is truly essential and what is merely important. Washington’s protracted obsession with Iraq over many years has badly skewed U.S. policy priorities. There are places that Americans should consider worth fighting and dying for. There are places on which the very fate of the planet may hinge. But Iraq is not one of those places. It’s time to break free of the tar baby and move on.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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